Friday, December 05, 2008

Living Among Somali Pirates

Kansas City Star | On the night of Sept. 17, a watchman aboard the Centauri noticed the stars shining off the wake of the pirates’ small vessel and sounded the alarm. But within five minutes of the first sighting, two boatloads of pirates armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades had swarmed aboard on makeshift ladders.

“They were shouting, ‘Captain, is not problem, just money,’ ” recalled Capt. Renato Tanada, his face twisting wryly.

“And when they found out we were Filipino, they said, ‘Filipino and Somali — friends!’ ” added crew member Alvin Genonangan with a laugh. “When they were shooting, we ducked down behind the walls. ... Then, when they came in, we just stood there with our hands in the air and the captain tried to talk calmly to them.”

The pirates did not let the crew telephone their families but treated them well, the sailors said, arranging deliveries of live goats to the ship for food, sharing their meals with the hostages, and encouraging them to work, fish and bake bread as a way of keeping busy. The pirates provided the flour, a luxury in impoverished Somalia, where nearly half the population is dependent on aid.

Most of the pirates were young, averaging around 25, Tanada said. They guarded the ship in shifts, with never fewer than 14 armed men on board, to be rotated every four or five days. The pirates slept on mats on the bridge and the deck, and the crew was not allowed above deck after dark.

But as the hostages got to know their guards, the crew discovered that the Somalis played a card game similar to a Filipino game. They established the rules with hand signals. Genonangan said he beat the pirates sometimes — but not too often.

In the meantime, the crew saw first one, then another captured vessel drop anchor in the blue waters alongside them.